Death is too often taken literally, and this unfortunate perspective is sustained by much cinema, despite the medium's dubious kiss of immortality. There's easy drama in tragedy and grisly ends, but not commonly do moviemakers successfully deliver symbolic death, the subtly grim yet vital bridge between lively verses. Happily, director (and former St. Louisan) George Hickenlooper (The Big Brass Ring) and screenwriter Philip Jayson Lasker (a regular for Barney Miller and The Golden Girls) lead us through a few such passages in The Man From Elysian Fields, a sharp, smart and robustly engaging film -- playing this week as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival -- about a man at the end of his rope and his struggle to avoid hanging himself with it.
Producer Andy Garcia stars as Byron Tiller, an effusively un-Byronic blatherer whose first, rather unremarkable novel, Hitler's Child, loiters in the remainder bins for $3.99 while his blithely supportive wife, Dena (Julianna Margulies), professes her undying affection for him and his work. "You can never trust a value system where true love is involved," warns crusty three-time Pulitzer-winning author Tobias Alcott (James Coburn), speaking of his own lovely young wife, Andrea (Olivia Williams), while betraying a hint of his once potent but now fading savoir faire. Through some curious twists of fate, Byron spends much of his emotional descent working with the rickety old scribe, setting up events that could lead to the novice's resurrection ... or contribute to his prolonged sense of doom.
The catalyst for Byron's trajectory is an unspeakably cool dude named Luther Fox (Mick Jagger, in his finest form since Performance or possibly Some Girls). The impish businessman -- whose surname speaks volumes -- happens to keep an office in the same low-rent Southern California building where Byron desperately pounds the keys in his quest for the literary Grail. Luther seems to be the only person who's actually read Byron's book ("Compassion was its greatest strength," he bluntly opines. "The premise was shit."), and he gains the faltering fellow's trust over drinks in a chic Chinese bar, then invites him to join his male-escort service, Elysian Fields. That the business is named after Greek mythology's blissful realm of the dead is hardly lost on Luther.
One of the more fascinating realizations within this story is that Byron isn't really such a great guy. At first -- possibly as a result of the routine autobiographical residue of a writer writing about a writer -- this is hazy. In the superb opening scene, Byron pushes his book on an innocent scrounger at a Pasadena bookshop's sale tables, which is discomforting but also funny and pathetically charming. The tics continue: Ashamed of raising his young son dead broke, Byron tries his best -- and fails -- to push a weak new novel on his uninterested publisher, to feign enthusiasm to his old boss in advertising, to beg money off Dena's grumpy father (who curtly replies, "What was it Shakespeare said? 'Neither a borrower nor a lender be.'"). The guy can't win, but as we get to know him, it's increasingly unclear whether he even deserves success.
Garcia tackles the role with aplomb, and his trepidation about becoming a gigolo -- servicing Tobias' quite needy wife in the hope of salvaging his own existence -- is palpable even when he starts enjoying the challenge. When he asks Luther whether his business makes him feel ashamed, the fey Brit replies, "No, poverty does that," and soon enough Byron's feeling good from his head to his shoes -- he's got a new attitude. The question is, will his deceit lead to happiness or destroy all hope of it?
Coburn is sublime as Tobias, shuffling through the vestiges of his passion and the unkempt splendor of his estate -- Hickenlooper is fond of crane shots and exploits some of greater LA's most delectable locations -- and Margulies and Williams put on a terrific balancing act between coy openness and casual cynicism. But it's Jagger who steals the show. When I proclaim the man an irresistible talent, it's not just groveling for comp tickets to a Stones gig. His devious turn as a manipulator of lives is great fun -- a tone much like Peter O'Toole's in The Stunt Man -- but he also delivers an altogether surprising poignancy. Luther's relationship with long-term client Jennifer Adler (Anjelica Huston, consistently impressive) reveals both the character's vulnerability and -- presumably -- Jagger's. Some golden moments here.
Lasker's script reveals cleverness and wisdom, but the fragility and fallibility of men's hearts is the stuff that holds it together. The ending's a bit maudlin, but en route to it Byron and Luther compel us to wonder how much pride men can sacrifice before they die, so to speak, and succumb to transformation. As we watch them struggle, it's not clear whether their shadowy strivings should even be associated with shame. After all, what was it Shakespeare said? -- "All men are bad, and in their badness reign."